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To Strengthen Democracy, Invest in Our Public Schools

(reprinted from American Educator, Spring 2018)

By Emily Gasoi, Deborah Meier

American Educator Spring 2018

Who could have imagined that, more than 150 years into this bold project of preparing successive generations for informed citizenship, our system of universal education would be as imperiled as it is today? One of the original ideas behind establishing a system of “common schools”—as one of the early advocates for public education, Horace Mann, referred to them—was not that they would all be mediocre, but that children from different backgrounds, the children of workers and the children of factory owners, would be educated together. As Mann wrote in 1848, “Education … beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”1

Of course, Mann’s own understanding of equality and citizenship was surely limited, as he wrote these words at a time when only white men had the vote, the Emancipation Proclamation was yet to be signed, and the children of workers were more likely to be working in factories themselves than they were to be attending school. And while schools have historically mirrored society’s inequities as much as they have inoculated against them, our public institutions nevertheless have at their foundation the ideals set forth in Mann’s quote and in our most soaring rhetoric about individual freedom and the common good.

And yet, in our current reform climate, our system of public education is often referred to as a “monopoly” rather than a public good. As such, in districts around the country, public schools are being shuttered at an alarming rate, with more than 1,700 schools closed nationwide in 2013 alone.2

Nowhere is this trend more dramatically played out than in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s home state of Michigan, where entire school districts are losing the battle against unregulated privatization through for-profit charter management entities and voucher programs. And while there is no evidence that school choice alone helps to create more equitable educational opportunities, DeVos seems determined to make Michigan a model for the rest of the country.3

With the very existence of our system of free, universal education hanging in the balance, there has not been much of a frame of reference for discussing the need to make our schools more democratic. However, in our recent book, These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools, we argue that the threat facing public education is a threat to our democracy writ large. Thus, if we are to take seriously our nation’s founding ideals, schools must remain grounded in the humanistic values underlying the original purpose of a system of education that aims to prepare all comers for competent participation in a country governed of, by, and for the people.

* * *

American Educator Spring 2018W. E. B. Du Bois laid claim to this original purpose in 1905 when he declared in a Niagara Movement speech: “When we call for education we mean real education. … Education is the development of power and ideal. We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be, and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings, or simply for the use of other people.”4 All societies educate a ruling class to make important decisions in their own interests, as well as for the society over which they rule. The history of our democracy is defined by the struggle to expand who is part of that ruling class. Du Bois’s quote highlights both the enduring shortcomings of our system of public schooling and the promise it holds out to provide all children—the future stewards of our commonweal*—with a ruling-class education.

There are multiple and complex reasons why, more than a century after Du Bois spoke these words, and nearly two decades after the aggressive and ineffective accountability measures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), our schools remain as segregated and unequal as ever.5 Certainly one of the primary causes is systemic racism that continues to plague our society. While few schools, regardless of demographics, have ever done a good job at providing children or adults opportunities to engage in experiences with democratic life, in low-income communities of color, schools tend to be characterized by an authoritative school culture. In fact, the level of intellectual and physical freedom in schools tends to correlate directly with the socioeconomic status and skin tone of the student body.6

But another strong factor in perpetuating school inequality is our historic tendency to conflate free-market ideology with democratic ideals. The tension between economic freedom—the right of individuals to enrich themselves—and the need for regulation, social services, and safety nets in the name of creating a strong civic fabric is long-standing in the evolution of our democracy. But over the last several decades, the ideas of free-market thinkers, such as economist Milton Friedman, who wrote the 1995 essay “Public Schools: Make Them Private,”7 have increasingly gained currency, in education reform and beyond.

Within the free-market paradigm, a one-to-one correlation is drawn between what is framed as the “failure” of public schools and what is seen as the “failure” of economically disadvantaged groups to pull themselves up and out of their circumstances. If schools would just teach “those” students more effectively, then, the argument goes, they’d be as likely as their more advantaged peers to compete competently in the pursuit of material wealth and happiness.

But market-oriented reforms prioritize the interests of the already advantaged. This is evidenced in test-based accountability strategies used to leverage school equity, a centerpiece of NCLB. A quick scan of National Assessment of Educational Progress data reveals that white students perpetually do better on standardized tests than all other groups, ensuring their demographically less privileged peers a Sisyphean cycle of catch-up.8 And yet, closing this elusive test-score gap has become a proxy for addressing the very real gaps in privilege. Thus, even as reform rhetoric champions the use of tests and privatization as tools to level the playing field, such tactics actually move us further from that goal.

Although it may seem impractical, even naive, in our current reform climate to advocate for prioritizing democratic education, we argue that such a change in course is imperative if we are ever to get on track toward a more inclusive and, not incidentally, more productive and just society. Our work in democratically governed settings has taught us about the benefits, difficulties, obstacles, and ways forward for creating democratic public schools that prepare the young for engaged citizenship.

It was in working together with colleagues, students, and families that we learned more about the dilemmas a democracy inevitably runs into and how to get comfortable grappling with the inevitable flaws and tradeoffs that arose within the system we created in our school. And through such grappling, we were able to model democratic practices and values for students. In democratic schools, teachers and families discuss, debate, and, as much as possible, make important decisions that affect the school community. Similarly, in such settings, young people have the opportunity to be “apprentice citizens” of their schools, in order to practice becoming active citizens in the larger society.

Ultimately, the purpose of public education in a democracy is to get more Americans, starting in early childhood, to internalize the idea that they are part of the deciding class, as entitled as anyone else to voice an opinion and to make a mark on the world. That, of course, is the ideal—one worth striving for. Given the increasingly precarious state of our public and democratic institutions, it is clear that we are paying a price for not making democratic citizenship an explicit and urgent goal of our national education reform agenda. For how can we hope to educate for democracy if children and the adults in their lives never have the opportunity to observe or practice it? And if such an education doesn’t take place in our public schools, then where will it happen?


Emily Gasoi, a cofounder of the consulting firm Artful Education, teaches in the education, inquiry, and justice program at Georgetown University. She was a founding teacher at Mission Hill School in Boston. Deborah Meier is a former senior scholar at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the author of numerous books and articles about public education. A former teacher and principal, she is also a MacArthur Foundation award winner.

*The word commonweal is not often used in writing, let alone common parlance. And yet the meaning, “the common welfare of the public,” should be more familiar, especially in schools, where, we argue, students should be taught to care about the commonweal, their place in it, and what contributions they will make to preserve and improve it. (back to the article)

Endnotes

1. Horace Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts School Board, 1848,” in American Educational Thought: Essays from 1640–1940, 2nd ed., ed. Andrew J. Milson et al. (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010), 163–175.

2. “Number and Enrollment of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools That Have Closed, by School Level, Type, and Charter Status: Selected Years, 1995–96 through 2013–14,” in National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2015, table 216.95.

3. Kevin Carey, “Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins,” New York Times, February 23, 2017; and Mari Binelli, “The Michigan Experiment,” New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2017.

4. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Niagara Movement Speech,” 1905, TeachingAmericanHistory.org, accessed January 2, 2018, www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/niagara-movement-speech (link is external).

5. Gary Orfield et al., “Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State” (Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project, 2016), www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-… (link is external).

6. Jason P. Nance, “Student Surveillance, Racial Inequalities, and Implicit Racial Bias,” Emory Law Journal 66 (2017): 765–837.

7. Milton Friedman, “Public Schools: Make Them Private,” Washington Post, February 19, 1995.

8. See National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012 (Washington, DC: Department of Education, 2013).

American Educator, Spring 2018

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My latest books

MEIER_GASOI_TheseSchools_FINALEmily Gasoi and I published last fall These Schools Belong to You and Me: Beacon Press, and so we have been busy promoting it around the country.

 

 

 


 

beyond_testing-332pxI will mention again that Matthew Knoester and I had a book published by TC Press last summer:  Beyond Testing: 7 Assessments of Students and Schools More Effective Than Standardized Tests.  And, by the way, more compatible with the purposes of schools.

 

 

Fall Reading Part II

Her are some more excellent books about issues in current education that I want to recommend:

RobinsoonCreative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. By Ken Robinson.
The second part of the title puzzles me, as I do not see education currently being transformed this way (I wish!). But the book itself is a wise one, and his work on schools is very popular. When such sensible good ideas are popularized I am particularly pleased. His TED talk on imagination and education is the most viewed TED talk of all time. See it as well.


Goyal

Schools on Trial.  How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. By Nikhil Goyal. 
Goyal is on the Fairtest board where I have gotten to know and respect his ideas and work. I have just begun reading it, and so far I would highly recommend it.


rooks_bookCutting School: Privatization. Segregation, and the End of Public Education.  By Nowile Roots.
I am halfway through and I have turned down dozens of pages to remember to reread.

 


ReadinessRethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work and Life. Edited by Rafael Heller, Rebecca Wolfe and Adria Steinberg.
A collection of essays that help tie together “vocational” education and citizenship in an interesting way.

 


MIntzSchool’s Over: How to Have Freedom and Democracy in Education. By Jerry Mintz
As the leader of the Free School movement’s AERO, Jerry and I have argued for years about the role of children in governance. But we have also agreed about much else. This book explores democracy and education in another of context—each of which are tackled as they help us explore the meaning of democracy.


KoretzThe Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. By Daniel Koretz
Koretz is a well-known testing expert from Harvard and he thoroughly demolishes the pretenses of high stakes standardized testing. Read this then Beyond Testing (that I wrote with Matt Knoester). Oddly, to me, Koretz remains a supporter of standardized testing but argues we need better ones.


 

I’ll stop here – more later.  I would love it if anyone has something to say about any of the above that might interest other readers.

And remember my two new books: These Schools Belong to You and Me with Emily Gasoi,  and Beyond Testing with Matt Knoester!!!

 

 

 

 

 

Fall Reading on Education

MEIER_GASOI_TheseSchools_FINALEmily Gasoi and I have just published These Schools Belong to You and Me: Beacon Press, and so we have been busy promoting it on the east coast.  This reminds me how much writers are anxious, not just for monetary reasons, to have readers, reactions, feedback, reviews, even denunciations. So it is time to do the same for the books some of my colleagues have written lately.

 


beyond_testing-332pxI will mention again that Matthew Knoester and I had a book published by TC Press over the summer:  Beyond Testing: 7 Assessments of Students and Schools More Effective Than Standardized Tests.  And, by the way, more compatible with the purposes of schools.

 

 


gritWhen Grit Isn’t Enough: Beacon Press. Linda Nathan was the founder and director of The Boston Art Academy, a wonderful innovative Boston high school. She has written an amazing book which, at its heart, tells the stories of young people and how schools mattered to them. She explores, through these stories, the dangerous benign sounding myths that underline the current deform movement.  READ

 


MerrowAddicted to Reform. A 12-Step Program to Rescue Pubic Education. The New Press. John Merrow of PBS’s The Merrow Report has been a steadfast media ally of most everything I care about. He has written a book with some important “don’ts” and some powerful “dos”.

 


Nieto_Brooklyn_Dreams_webBrooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education. Harvard Education Press. Sonia Nieto is a hero of mine and so this book of memoirs has made for a very good read.  If you do or do not know her work I think this is an important read.

 

 


In my next blog I have several other new and great books to tell you about!

My newest books and other news

Dear friends and colleagues,

Catching up on two months since I last wrote!

My book with Emily Gasoi, These Schools Belong To You and Me, from Beacon Press, is shortly going to appear in your local bookstore or however you buy books! Maybe libraries soon. And at some point in audible form.

The book traces, in alternating chapters, our experiences in public schools and the challenge it poses for educating a democracy. As we confront a massively well-funded campaign to privatize our nation’s schools, using the monies now directed at public schools, we hope the book will provide useful stories and arguments for public education. It rests on an account of work we have both done.

Read it, talk about it–make it controversial by even disagreeing with us– and review it, use it in a course you’re teaching!

I will be doing some talks here and there during the coming months. Check my site for dates and places.  If you have ideas, email me.

ALSO

In June Teachers College Press published Beyond Testing which was written by Matthew Knoester and me. Matthew did most of the work; thanks Matt. We were colleagues at Mission Hill. Matthew is now a professor at Ripon College. The book describes seven better ways to assess students and schools.

Other news: My grandson Ezra got married. It was a great wedding!

I had a stent put into an artery and I got Lyme disease–leaving my co-authors high and dry once again.

The Democratic Socialists of America, which was started in my living room ages ago–more than quadrupled or more in size.  Thanks Bernie.

Rediscovered the use of laughter when your enemies give you a chance. But I am also scared about what the years ahead will bring–including possibly ending public education. Like democracy. We have not so gradually made leaps away from our already flawed democracy but we’re probably best described as an oligarchy with democratic features.

But…we are resisting, rethinking and I hope we will see tangible results in fall 2018

Deb

P.S. I’ll append comments about other people’s book that I like in a week or so.

Beyond Testing

Dear Friends and Family,

I want to let you know that my new book, Beyond Testing: Seven Assessments of Students and Schools More Effective Than Standardized Tests is out and is currently being offered at a discount by TC Press!

beyond_testing-332px

Below is a description of the book :

Beyond Testing describes seven forms of assessment that are more effective than standardized test results: (1) student self-assessments, (2) direct teacher observations of students and their work, (3) descriptive reviews of the child, (4) reading and math interviews with children, (5) portfolios and public defense of student work, (6) school reviews and observations by outside professionals, and (7) school boards and town meetings. These assessments are more honest about what we can and cannot know about children’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions, and are more adaptable to varying educational missions. Readers can compare and contrast each approach and make informed decisions about what is most appropriate for their school.

Click here to visit the online book page. Please note that there is a 20% discount when using the code “TCP2017.” Exam copies for text adoption are available by clicking here.

CPE update and other miscellany

Dear Colleagues and friends,

On the Central Park East front. The interim appointed without consulting the school community is a good guy whose sympathies seem progressive. However, the “system” undermines even him by rushing the process of permanently appointing someone before the next school year. The process, called the C-30, was meant originally to ensure that parents and staff had a major voice in the selection of “their” principal. But the process is so flawed that no one believes that is what it does. Thus, the interim may well be appointed soon without being chosen freely from all the applicants (or even knowing who they were). The fight conducted years ago, for a more democratic schooling, has mostly gone backwards. New York city, first of all, has limited control given the powers of New York State and the Federal government. Plus, the Chancellor is chosen by the Mayor.  Explain that to those defending public education as public. Like me! But it is easier to have a voice in a system that has some semblance of public accountability than in privately controlled chains with their corporate style management structure and far less accountability. If we continue to dismantle public education it will be far harder to get our voice back than passing good legislation to make urban schools “belong to you and me”.

Which is incidentally, the title of the book my colleague Emily Gasoi and I have just finished: These Schools Belong to You and Me. Publisher: Beacon.  It will be available in September but can be ordered now. It is one of two books I have just co-authored. The other is Beyond Testing, with Matthew Knoester coming out in July by Teachers College (with a chapter by Ann Cook.).

*{Full disclosure). Given my medical problems (heart and eyes) this past two years, the burden for finishing these books has fallen on my co authors.  And today I am doing fine and, thanks to them, both books are now in their publishers hands.

Going back briefly to CPE and the C-30 process. We teach 5 year olds that in a democracy a majority wins. Meanwhile we live at time when our system (with its many strengths “compared to…”) is perhaps best described as an oligarchy with democratic features rather than vice versa. If we counted the votes the Democrats got n 2016 for the House or Senate, not to mention the President, I’ll bet the Republicans lost decisively in all three.  And no one argues that the Supreme Court is chosen in a democratic fashion—expressing “the will of the people”. We spend very little time in school or life trying to understand the complexity of the “democratic” idea —which probably cannot have a “pure” form once numbers go beyond…three? But it would be nice if we thought more about how schools could introduce the idea by being themselves an experiment in democracy.

Enough for now.

Deborah